The Rise of Virtual Co-Viewing

Why co-viewing is here to stay, and how it will impact content consumption and unlock new brand opportunities

Richard Yao
Oct 7, 2020 · 10 min read
Image Credit: Disney via Parentology

Last week, Disney+ became the latest streaming service to add a co-viewing feature called “GroupWatch”, which allows up to seven subscribers to watch Disney+ content in sync while sharing reactions via a preset selection of emojis. Prior to this, Disney-owned Hulu introduced a Watch Party feature in May, while Amazon added a co-watching feature with the same name to Prime Video in June. Besides the streaming giants, many other streaming services are also exploring similar features aiming to serve the rise of remote co-viewing behavior, which rose to prominence over the past six months due to social distancing measures.

Some may argue that virtual co-viewing is a “quarantine special” behavior that will not sustain once we put the pandemic behind us and can start socializing offline again. However, that argument overlooks two important factors that gave rise to co-viewing and will keep it relevant: one, even before the pandemic, younger generations already preferred to socialize online over meeting up in real life, and watching content together is a big part of online hangouts; and two, organizing a virtual viewing party from the comfort of your couch is far easier than planning an actual get-together, and user behavior tends to follow the path of least resistance.

Over the years, our social life has gradually shifted online, and this pandemic has greatly accelerated that shift. So it only makes sense that the co-viewing behaviors that people have cultivated over this pandemic will sustain as part of our digital socialization. Since co-viewing is here to stay, it is important for brand marketers to understand its ongoing development, its potential impact on content consumption, and its marketing implications.

The Many Ways of Virtual Co-Viewing

Long before any of the streaming services launched their own native co-viewing features, third-party plug-ins and services have existed to enable synchronized viewing for sites like YouTube and Netflix. Back in March, when the demand for co-viewing first surged, Netflix Party, an unaffiliated Chrome browser extension, led the pack of third-party co-viewing services that also included Kast, Metastream, and TwoSeven. All these services only worked on web browsers, so connected TV viewers also turned to Zoom and FaceTime for solving their co-viewing needs by manually syncing the content with each other over video chat.

Streaming Giants Chose Varying Paths

Noticing the surge of usage in co-viewing services, streaming services started adding integrated solutions to capture the demand before long as a competitive differentiation. The aforementioned “Watch Party” features for Hulu and Amazon Prime Video came shortly after, both allowing participants to share their thoughts using live text chat within the service. Hulu, as the first major OTT service in the U.S. to launch a native co-viewing feature, initially only made it available for subscribers on the ad-free tier, but has since made it available to ad-supported subscribers as well in a limited capacity.

In mid-May, HBO announced it was working with startup Scener to enable co-viewing on the HBO Go and HBO Now apps using a Chrome extension. Unlike the other text-based co-viewing features, Scener also supports video chats, similar to fellow Chrome extension Netflix Party.

Image Credit: Scener

In terms of communication format, the emoji-only approach that Disney+ took is an outlier, although it just might be the most suitable one considering the service’s family-friendly branding. Limiting on-platform communications to six preset emojis limits communication, but it also frees Disney+ from any possible liability of inappropriate content. Plus, a separate video chat could easily be set up on mobile devices to supplement the communication, given that Disney+ GroupWatch is primarily positioned as a connected TV experience.

It is interesting to note that Netflix, the global leader in streaming services, has yet to release its own co-viewing feature, nor announced any plan of working on one. This is likely due to the fact that most of the existing third-party extensions are built primarily for Netflix, which likely offsets the urgent need for Nefflix to come up with a native solution that works on Connected TVs. Still, co-viewing could be a powerful tool for collecting granular audience feedback, and Netflix is missing out on a valuable data source that its competitors now can leverage, with due respect to user privacy, for better audience insights.

Other VOD Players Aim to Keep Up

Besides the leading streaming services, other smaller video on-demand services have also jumped on the co-viewing bandwagon. In late May, media software maker Plex also launched a “Watch Together” feature, which works both with its own collection of on-demand content and users’ personal media. Notably, the feature works on Flex’s Roku app in addition to its mobile apps. Similarly, Movie Everywhere, a digital locker service that grants users centralized access to their purchased movies from transactional VOD platforms, also introduced a co-viewing feature in early September, which is enabled via its “Screen Pass” feature that allows users to lend out one of their purchased movies to a friend or family member for free.

Notably, Sling TV, a popular vMVPD service, also brought co-viewing to live TV with the debut of its Watch Party feature, which allows friends and family in different locations to watch live TV together at the same time over video chat. Like many other co-viewing services, however it only works on Google Chrome at the moment. After all, not that many connected TVs come with a built-in camera.

Social Platforms Go Beyond Live Video

Beyond streaming services, social platforms are also getting in on the co-viewing boom. In a way, live video on social platforms is by default a co-viewing experience, albeit one where reactions are limited to text and emojis. In live-streams with a sizable audience, any meaningful interactions between viewers tend to get drowned out by the sheer volume of comments. To counter this, Instagram rolled out co-watching features in late March for scrolling through posts and stories, while HouseParty launched its own take on co-viewing virtual events in May. Both features focus on allowing the co-viewers to better interact with each other, rather than the creator behind the live video.

More recently, Verizon-owned Yahoo Sports app introduced a co-viewing feature that lets fans see live football games while having video chats with friends and family, whereas Instagram Messenger and Messenger Rooms added the ability to watch Facebook Watch content together. Considering that Facebook Portal, which is primarily marketed as a video chat device, just added support for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, perhaps we’d see similar co-viewing features coming to Portal too before long.

All these co-viewing features come in various formats and platform availability, and it will take a while before a standard emerges. Nevertheless, the raison d’etre of native co-viewing features on streaming and social platforms is to provide users with a convenient, integrated way to enjoy content together and drive engagement. To that end, the rise of co-viewing will likely lead to some interesting changes in content consumption.

Impact on Content Consumption

Whether it happens via FaceTime or one of the many features mentioned above, co-viewing adds a social dimension to digital content consumption and complicates the viewing experience with a live meta-experience layered atop. Mainly, its impact on content consumption can be roughly categorized as follows.

Appointment Viewing 2.0

For the past decade, the main narrative in the TV industry has been a shift from linear pay-TV viewing to time-shifted on-demand viewing facilitated by streaming services. Consequently, that also led to the death of appointment TV and TV monoculture. However, the rise of co-viewing is, to some extent, reversing that trend by luring people back to appointment viewing with the joy of shared experiences, albeit on a smaller scale than before. Interestingly, the rise of co-viewing also dovetails with the closing of movie theaters, the OG venue for communal viewing. Through this lens, co-viewing, especially those that happen on connected TVs, can be seen as an extension of the home theater, beaming in your select group of friends and family members for a private virtual theater experience.

Co-Viewers as Communities

Certain types of content are more enjoyable when watched in a crowd. Given that the type of content most likely to draw a group of spectators is live events like sports or awards ceremonies, the rise of co-viewing can also contribute to the normalization of live co-viewing behaviors that are already prevalent on game live-streaming platforms like Twitch. Today, co-viewing is great for spending time virtually with people you know, but it can also be a great way for people to meet people who share the same interests. Online viewing parties were already popular among fandoms before the pandemic; the mainstreamization of co-viewing allows it to become a broader community-building tool for sports leagues, networks and studios, and cultural institutions to engage audiences and add value to their content.

Co-Viewing as Content Creation

Intriguingly, co-viewing also turns passive consumption into active reacting, especially when co-viewing happens on video chat. A private viewing experience is turned into a performative act once the camera turns on, thus making every co-viewing session into reaction content, which is a UGC genre with growing popularity on YouTube and Twitch. Most people are drawn to reaction videos because they don’t have people they know in real life that share their interests, and watching other people react to a piece of content that they enjoy is an indirect way of seeking connections and validation. The rise of co-viewing normalizes the reaction video genre, which, in turn, generates more affiliated content for fans to consume. The music industry, always one of the first media sectors to be disrupted, has been confronted with a new form of democratized music journalism in the form of reaction videos.

Co-Viewing as Distraction

Lastly, co-viewing could come as a distraction to the content itself. After all, sideline reactions from co-viewers are essentially competing for attention with the main stage, and the interactions between co-viewers would naturally be most active during commercial breaks. In fact, a 2011 study on the impact of offline co-viewing found that “co-viewing of TV commercials reduced their effectiveness (delayed proven ad recall) from 63%, obtained by single viewers, to 43%, for both co-viewers.” The same logic applies to virtual co-viewing in the streaming age, which perhaps explains why none of the ad-supported streaming services have introduced a co-viewing feature so far.

Brand Takeaways

Given its multifaceted impact on content consumption, the rise of co-viewing presents an emerging behavior shift that brand marketers need to take into account. For entertainment brands, co-viewing presents not only a novel way to add interactivity and commentary to your existing content, but also a way to generate new affiliated content. Reaction videos can be quite an effective marketing tool, as the toy industry has discovered with unboxing videos, and co-viewing can be harnessed as a new tool to generated reaction content featuring not only social influencers and content creators who can reach your target demos, but also the directors, showrunners, and celebrities to offer commentary on the content.

The rise of co-viewing also expands what is possible for a second-screen experience. Last year, Cosmopolitan magazine and Google worked together to create a mobile “Watch Party” for the new season of You on Netflix, which essentially functioned as a second-screen companion experience for the show. As more viewers become familiarized with virtual co-viewing, new kinds of second-screen experiences via live video become a viable tactic to drive appointment viewing and generate buzz at launch. This strategy is not only applicable to new content, but also to creating viewing events for catalog content on streaming services and capturing the community conversations around it (typically on social channels such as Twitter).

More importantly, co-viewing brings people together when social distancing is keeping us apart, and it will continue to bring people together as socialization moves increasingly online. Experiential marketing has long been a tried-and-true tactic for marketers to build buzz and elevate the brand experience, and with the experiential economy morphing into the Zoom economy, it is a no brainer that co-viewing would be a valuable way to bring your audience together to rejoice in a shared experience. Whether it’s inviting fans to watch a piece of new branded content, or sponsor a viewing party of content that fits your brand’s messaging and core value, co-viewing can be a fun and innovative way for any consumer-facing brands to create branded content, build communities, and increase brand affinity.

Ultimately, virtual co-viewing is just one of the many possibilities that the shift to digital media will unlock in content format and modes of consumption. Among other things, co-viewing features can help encourage trial of a new service, as well as legitimate usage over piracy to gain access to the co-viewing tools. HBO Max’s latest Halloween campaign, for example, prompts viewers to stream Halloween classics together. The layer of real-time social interaction that co-viewing adds to any content is what elevates the viewing experience, and many more interactive features and formats are yet to come to further blur the line between content consumption and creation.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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